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Defense secretary Gates says North Korean ballistic missiles pose 'direct threat' to U.S.

By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 11, 2011; 12:11 PM

BEIJING --U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates warned North Korea Tuesday that its nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile programs are "becoming a direct threat to the United States."

Gates, who is in China on the second leg of a four-country Asia tour, predicted that North Korea's reclusive government would succeed in developing an intercontinental ballistic missile within five years.

But, in a first for a U.S. senior official, Gates also gave North Korea some concrete suggestions about what the United States wants it to do in order to restart stalled talks over its nuclear weapons program: declare a moratorium on both missile and nuclear tests.

His blunt comments came after a meeting with Chinese president Hu Jintao, an ally of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Earlier Tuesday, China's military staged a test of its new stealth aircraft--an aggressive move that could be interpreted as a snub of both the United States and of China's civilian leadership.

Stopping North Korea's nuclear program has long been a top goal for the United States, and one that has proved elusive.

North Korea has threatened to test intercontinental ballistic missiles, and has already conducted underground nuclear tests that prove it has manufactured at least rudimentary nuclear weapons.

"With the North Koreans' continuing development of nuclear weapons and their development of intercontinental ballistic missiles, North Korea is becoming a direct threat to the United States, and we have to take that into account," Gates said.

The defense secretary also said the United States is renewing its efforts to find a way to curtail North Korea's erratic and provocative behavior.

"We consider this a situation of real concern and we think there is some urgency to proceeding down the track of negotiations and engagement," he said.

Tensions have skyrocketed on the Korean peninsula since March, when North Korea sank a South Korean warship killing 46 sailors and then in November shelled a South Korean island, killing two civilians and two soldiers.

In past weeks, U.S. officials have said they want North Korean to take concrete steps to improve the security situation on the peninsula. But Gates's remarks on Tuesday included the most specific suggestions so far.

Gates will leave China on Wednesday for Japan, and conclude his trip with a visit to Seoul, South Korea.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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